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Last updated April 25, 1999; first published to the web: December 23, 1997.
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The Artful Heart of the Story


Dev Hathaway

    This fall I've been re-reading Tobia Wolff's short story, "Say Yes," realizing again what a good one it is.
     You're probably familiar with this story, as it's often anthologized and has made its way into fiction writing texts. It's the one, remember, about the husband and wife doing the dishes, when a discussion about Blacks and Whites blows up into an argument and a falling out. She stalks off to fume, he begins to cool down, taking out the trash, and then later waits in bed while she... you know the story: good. If you don't, go read it.
     It's a good one, as I said, because, well, I think it has what a story ought to have; it does what a story ought to do. Which is, for one, it shows us right off that something's up; there's suspicious surface tension that soon indicates conflicting desires. Through everything that happens with the two characters, we feel this thing between them driving the story, trying to work itself out--in the kitchen, outside, in the bedroom scene. And by the time the story concludes, we sense that some of that work is getting done: something significant has been brought about; something that matters inside the character(s) has started changing.
     "Say Yes" also uses details that do more than simply make the story realistic, as in the opening scene, where the wife, as she washes the dishes and warms to her part in the racial discussion, begins turning a bowl in her hand "as though she were shaping it"-- the implication being that her rising feelings are finding expression in her fingers as well. I know, I know; most of us writer types can pick out such an evident example, second nature, and we might even feel moved to remark, "Well, duh." My point is that we duh-sayer writers don't often practice the artistry we read; sometimes pages and pages of our drafts pass by with basket loads of detail, but barely any of it does real double duty like the Wolff line does.
     Wolff is similarly capable, I find, of using larger scenes or a series of actions that do authenticating duty on one level while reverberating symbolically on another. The scene where the husband takes out the trash provides a pretty fair example, when he sees the two mutts getting into the garbage, noticing the one that keeps shaking her scrap (like the wife's refusal to let go of the argument). He doesn't chase them with a rock as he usually would, thereby suggesting that his shame at having fought, and his cooling off, are now for real. A subtler instance occurs at the end where alone in the dark he can't tell what his wife has been up to in the bathroom ("We'll see," she's said to his promise to marry, as though she's contriving some test scenario); and as she crosses the room, he can't see her at all (his own wife, whom he thinks he knows), and feels a fear as of hearing "a stranger" in the house.
     Another thing this story does just as it should is to let us see characters who are made convincing by quirky touches or idiosyncrasies. The wife, for example, "pinch[es] her brows together and bite[s] her lower lip" whenever starting to argue, and then afterwards pages slowly through a magazine, "as if she were studying every word," to pretend her indifference. No major individualizing there, granted, but she has her own ticks and telltale behaviors like real people do. (In some other stories of Wolff's, such as "Hunters in the Snow" and "Bullet in the Brain," he shows some true mastery in making characters highly individualized and remarkably convincing.)
     Another item on my list here is Wolff's practice of keeping the lid on emotional elements, not letting the conflict erupt into melodrama or gratuitous violence. This he does by interrupting the argument when the wife cuts her finger and the husband rushes to her aid, and by having sullenness, not outright anger, rule them afterward. And of course the actual argument question -- do you really love me for who I am? -- is disguised or embedded in a surface subject -- the Black/White question / the husband's racism -- which works as an effective proxy for, an extended dramatic embodiment of, the real issue.
     Think about it. What could the writer do with just a naked "Do you love me?" Not much except have the meaning mouthed, abstractly and quickly, in clinched terms, and likely end up with an explosive scene, one in which the twosome are shouting loudly or swinging away as stock role players, not developed characters. The good writer seeks a way to have the story embody or represent what's really going on, and seldom lets the meaning totally expend or openly express itself outside that embodiment -- it's not platformed or sensationalized. And besides, a large part of our pleasure as readers is in at first intuiting, then inferring more certainly, what is going on. Or to put it a more familiar way: showing has it all over telling, because we get the story fleshed out in particular and gradually developed, like real-life experience, not pre-processed as a generic summary.
     Additionally, Wolff shows us the complexity of human nature, not a simplified, stereotyped version of it. The husband likes to help with housework or come to the rescue, as already shown, but there's a smug, self-congratulatory side to him too: "I try," he says. He knows they're heading into argument territory, but can't help going there. He shows himself as a racist, a closet bigot, and seems to imply he doesn't love his wife; yet after they've argued, he experiences a rush of genuine feelings for their years together, and he apologizes, saying he'll marry her -- will, not just would.
     And finally, in artfully showing all this, especially by making the husband be the point-of-view character, Wolf endeavors to elicit our sympathy for a character we may have passed judgments against. Good fiction can do that: broaden our sympathies, in ways that in-your-face, actual experiences often cannot.
     And yes, there's other stuff, too, that's found in stories a cut above the usual: full-blown scenes, dialog that's dead-on, language that makes details realer than real; mystery and grace, surprises and epiphanies. The list of elements is impressive all right. But for now I'll stick to the several cited here. They make a good basic contract for the serious writer, don't you think?
Copyright © 1997 Dev Hathaway, all rights reserved

Dev Hathaway teaches writing at Shippensburg University. His short stories have appeared in such distinguished publications as Carolina Quarterly, Missouri Review, and Willow Springs. In 1992 Lynx House Press published his collection, The Widow's Boy. For a period of time, he served as editor of The Black Warrior Review, one of the most important literary publications in the U.S.

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